What did Peter mean when he said that Paul's letters contain things that are hard to understand​?

Are Paul’s Letters Hard to Understand? Rethinking 2 Peter 3:16

There is a famous go-to verse in Second Peter for those trying to say that Paul’s letters are confusing and hard to understand. Peter’s words are frequently taken to mean that we cannot properly interpret many of the theological discourses in Paul. His statement has often been used as a cop-out in (losing) debates over a Pauline text. But is this really what Peter meant? Is he really telling his audience that they should throw in the towel and give up on Pauline exegesis? I encourage you to read the entire context in which the verse is found (see passage below), and then we will get into reasons why we can still understand Paul, and why this verse does not teach that we cannot:

14Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, 15and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. 17You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, 18but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Pet. 3:14-18 NASB, emphasis mine)Before even digging into Peter’s statement, it is necessary to think for a minute about the nature of Paul’s epistles. Paul was a real human being writing to real churches and individuals. There is not a single hint in any of his epistles that he intentionally blurred the meaning or tried to confuse his readers. His epistles are basic first-century letters in form, and contain all of the usual dialog features and structures in every day communication.

Also, consider for a moment how hypocritical Paul would be for calling out false teachers when it was his own fault for not spelling out true doctrine clear enough. Paul should not have been a teacher had his communication skills been so poor that his readers thought he was a gnostic or a Judaizer. It is just silly to say we can’t understand Paul, and even more silly to say that Peter’s audience couldn’t either.

Peter agreed with Paul about what was confusing

It is interesting to note that there is a textual varience in 2 Peter 3:16 over the word for “which,” in “in which are many things…” It is between a masculine/neuter (hois), and a feminine (hais). If we go with the Textus Receptus (KJV), it would be hois which would refer not to the letters, but to the “these things,” meaning eschatology and such. So it is possible that Peter wasn’t even talking about Paul’s writings and this blog post would not even be necessary. But if we go with the best manuscripts (used in most translations other than KJV), Peter says that Paul’s letters contain hard things (genders match).

But even with this being the case, it is Paul’s teaching which accords with Peter’s same teaching in this passage that contains confusing ideas. If we take this verse to mean that we can’t understand Paul, we must say we can’t understand Peter either, because the “things” in Paul’s letters are in line with “these things” that Peter writes.

Peter’s whole reason for bringing up Paul was to support what he already said. In essence, “Don’t just take my word for it, Paul the apostle says so too!” It would throw a wrench in Peter’s appeal to Paul for support had he meant to say that Paul was confusing. To call upon blurry sources for support of his teaching would be folly.

Too marvelous for our imagination; not confusing doctrine

Also, we know from our main passage that Peter’s audience did understand (at least the gist of) Paul’s writings. This becomes clear when we see what doctrines Peter is referring to. They are the same topics he himself has been discussing: God’s patience unto salvation, and eschatology. Peter had just been talking about how God is not slow in keeping His promises, but is allowing more time to pass before Jesus’ return because He has more people He wants to save (vv. 8-9). So in verse 15, right before he says, “just as also our beloved brother Paul…wrote to you,” Peter mentions “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” So one of the particular teachings of Paul he has in mind is just that: God’s patience unto salvation. This same idea can be found, for example, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4)?

Or in verse 16, where Peter says that Paul spoke in his letter of “these things.” Clearly the “these things” here must be referring to the “these things” of verse 14. In verse 14 Peter was referring back to verses 10-13 where he talked about the earth being destroyed and the coming of the New Heavens and New Earth. This can be paralleled with Paul’s teaching in Romans that the creation is groaning and awaiting restoration at the revelation of the sons of God (Rom. 8:18-25). So we could say that Peter does not find every line of Paul’s writings confusing, but his eschatological themes and imagery.

“Just as” = “patience unto salvation”
“These things” = “New Heaven & Earth”

Certainly within Paul’s eschatological discussions are found many hard sayings. But they are not hard because we cannot understand what he meant, but because the ideas are far beyond our imagination! Consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonians that Christ will slay the lawless one with the breath of His mouth (2 Thes. 2:8). Paul was repeating stuff they were already taught (v. 5), so we know his words didn’t bewilder them. We too can understand that there will be some major (false) religious figure in the last days who will deceive many, but that he, like all of God’s enemies, will be destroyed in the end. That is not too “hard to understand.” What’s hard to understand are the finer details: In what way will His breath slay him? Will He kill him from heaven, or on earth? Will this be a public execution for all to see? etc. The doctrine is not hard to grasp, but the reality of it is so mysterious and almost too “magical” for our imaginations to picture.

The same goes for how Paul says that we will be caught up in air to meet Jesus in the clouds (1 Thes. 4:13-18), or how we will be changed from perishable to imperishable in the twinkling of an eye (1 Cor. 15:50-57). We can understand and repeat the doctrines about glorified bodies, the elect being gathered from the four winds, and the resurrection of the righteous. What Peter labels as “hard to understand” is how all of it works because we have never possessed glorified bodies and never flown up into the clouds.

Why all of the disagreements over Paul’s sayings then?

Truly most of the disagreements among the best commentators boil down to translation rather than theological convictions. For example, when three evangelical scholars come across a genitive, one will take it as an objective genitive, another subjective, and the third as possessive. This is not because either of them a heretic, but because 21st century English-speaking Americans are distant from Paul’s original audience. Paul however was never intentionally ambiguous. Instead, being the brilliant communicator he was, he worded his letters in such a way that the churches would clearly comprehend what he meant. It was clear to them because they spoke the language perfectly.

As for the rest of the disagreements, it is not Paul’s fault, but the interpreters own hard heart. As Peter puts it, men will twist Paul’s (clear) words because they are unlearned, unstable, and unprincipled. It is these false teachers’ own sin and unwillingness to submit to the Bible’s authority that leads them to come up with crazy doctrines. In this context, Peter was directly dealing with people saying Jesus will never come back, and Paul dealt with people saying the Day of the Lord already came! In our day, stuff like Left Behind is so attractive because Americans like conspiracy theories and fantasy. Whole cults form because somebody twisted the Bible through some secret code to predict exact dates for the rapture. And so forth. We simply need to be the opposite of Peter’s opponents: learned, stable, and principled.

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord” (2 Pet. 3:18)!!

-Steve Rohn

What do you think?